ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock Dali stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I. Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney teamed up forFantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Aria (1987).

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL

 Ken Russell

Parts I  & 2 of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of  (1927-2011) originally posted at 366 Weird Movies. Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

Ken Russell

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

KEN RUSSELL French Dressing

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of Richaed Lester‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

KEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar BrainKEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar Brain

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love


Women In Love
(1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Kramer’s script, also nominated for an Academy Award, simplifies its literary source). Russell’s body of work, especially in television, reveals a highly erudite filmmaker who consistently approached literary themes and subjects with contextual fidelity, as opposed to surface literalism, which eventually branded him an irreverent enfant terrible.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love

Russell had a superb cast in Bates, Reed, Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Jenny Linden. Billy Williams’ camerawork (yet another Oscar nominee) is lyrical, stark, and very much indicative of Russell to come.

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

After the box office and critical success of Women in Love, Russell plunged quickly into his first theatrical film with a composer as its subject. The Music Lovers (1970) focuses on Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). With expressionistic sets, psychedelic lensing, elongated fantasy sequences (clearly inspired by : Kenneth Anger and Fantasia), along with a spiritually irreverent, high-pitched tone, this is Russell as we came to know him. Forsaking the typical program bio of the Nutcracker composer, Russell is not at all interested in pedestrian ideas of a “biopic.” Frank about its subject’s banality (he ejaculates while imagining the cannons of his god awful “1812 Overture” aimed at his enemies) and homosexuality, many critics, Roger Ebert included, labeled the film libelous. Chamberlain, who years later came out of the closet, in a far more accepting period, expertly slips into the title role. As Nina, the composer’s sexually frustrated wife, Glenda Jackson again excels in her second collaboration with Russell (she also spends much of the film in full frontal nudity, which, of course, inspired a few exploding heads in the “classical music” scene).

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

In all fairness to Russell, Tchaikovsky was tormented by his sexuality (in a undoubtedly hostile era). His death, publicly attributed to cholera, was probably a suicide, and he admitted a self-loathing for producing such commissioned works as the “Nutcracker” and “1812.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s best work is his lesser-known, personal compositions. Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with his usual craftsmanship. The film, like its subject, is aptly heart-on-sleeve.

Ken Russell The Devils

The Devils (1971) is considered by many cult film fans to be Russell’s masterpiece, and it is almost unfathomable that it would be denied a 366 List entry. Russell, a convert to Catholicism, was aware of that religion’s inherent surrealism. Attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to its dogma (I can relate), Russell locates the pulse of European excesses. For the traditionalist minded, The Devils is unadulterated blasphemy.

Ken Russell The Devils
Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,”The Devils is the quintessential example of Russell excess (don’t dare look for a discernible plot)With opulent set designs by  (a frequent Russell collaborator), masturbating nuns, sadomasochistic demonic possessions, tormented priests of the Inquisition, and X-rated sexual fantasies, Russell is intentionally provocativesparing no demographic from potential offense (including Roger Ebert, an atheist and former Catholic). Oliver Reed gives the performance of his life as a sacred erection, in duet with a bewitching Vanessa Redgrave.

Ken Russell The Devils

Chicago Reader critic David Kehr found humor in The Devils and amusingly described it as a “David Lean remake of Pink Flamingos.” That’s about apt a summary as one can manage. More than forty years after its release, The Devils is no less subversive today, and has had spotty distribution in home video.

Ken Russell the Boy Friend

Russell followed The Devils with his only movie to receive a “G” rating. Starring Twiggy and adorned in an MGM color palette, The Boy Friend (1971) is an oddity in the Russell cannon. Based on Sandy Wilson’s 1954 play, Russell, with his charismatic lead, transforms it into a musical with an almost Wagnerian undercurrent (as if Busby Berkeley, clearly channeled here, isn’t demented enough). Twiggy’s charm serves as a counterbalance to Russell’s wandering camera. Christopher Gable co-stars (and will work with Russell again in 1989’s The Rainbow). Unfortunately, The Boyfriend was a box office flop, which prompted MGM to refuse Russell financial backing for his next film.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Russell financed Savage Messiah (1972) himself, which again finds the director examining artistic genius, here in the persona of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony). With Russell’s lifelong, obsessive passion for his subject, Savage Messiah is an authentic labor of love. Derek Jarman again serves as Russell’s art director, endowing Savage Messiah with Russell’s over-the top-visual sensibility (including an amorous Helen Mirren in a pop-colored cabaret). It is also an emotionally rich film focusing on the romance between Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), which makes it all the more disappointing that MGM failed to promote it in distribution. Savage Messiah is, paradoxically, one of Russell’s most accomplished and least known works.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler (1974) is another highly personal film for Russell, which I previously wrote about here.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Starring The Who, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John (as the Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner (as the Acid Queen), and Robert Powell, Tommy (1975) is undoubtedly Russell’s most famous film. Based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera,  many critics accused Russell of preferring spectacle to substance. Others felt Russell’s film was a too literal approach. Tommy divided both fans and critics alike, and still does. The flaws are more the Who’s than Russell’s. With his operatic tenets and sense to enough to know that good taste is often at enmity with good art, Russell makes Tommy a powerful, one-of-a-kind experience, with each act topping its predecessor, building to an aptly histrionic crescendo. Disorienting, sensual, and filled to the brim with salted pain, Tommy is that rarity of rarities: an artistically authentic opera and musical experience.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Reed, unleashed again, proves an ideal collaborator, and Ann-Margaret deservedly earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tommy’s mother. Unfortunately, Roger Daltry is no actor, and his performance undeniably hinders the film.

Tommy is already a deserving List Candidate and hopefully will be canonized sometime in the future.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Lisztomania (1975) is Russell’s idiosyncratic take on composer Franz Liszt. It is also an official List entry, found here.

Ken Russell Valentino

Under-directed by Russell and physically miscast, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev still convinces as the titular Valentino (1977). A mix of alarming self-control and unfettered hyperbole, this uneven film disappointed Russell fans who wanted something more experimental in the vein of Mahler and Lisztomania. It also disappointed cinema history buffs and Valentino fans who wanted (but should not have expected) something more orthodox.

Ken Russell ValentinoKen Russell Valentino

Despite flaws, Valentino is a beautiful film and accessible, if not constrained by historicity. Russell treats this subject no differently than others, including religion, as a mix of fantasy, facts, legend, and folklore.

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino was Russell’s biggest budgeted film to date and was a resounding flop at the American box office (it did considerably better overseas). It has since developed a cult following and recently has been released on Blu-ray, although the transfer has received mixed reviews.

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INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975) advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute 1975 ad

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute '75Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute vhs edition

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

Ingmar Bergman directing The Magic Flute

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M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

LA FINTA GIARDINIERA (DORIE)M22 LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini).  The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti.  Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees.  The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore.  Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero.  The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper.  The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore.  Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement.  Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate.  The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante.  Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well.  Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante.  Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms.  Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to  marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot?  As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music.  In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era).  Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production.  Primary colors abound. Continue reading

Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production

Dmitri Tcherniakov Wozzeck

It’s a good sign that we now have half a dozen excellent Wozzecks available on DVD. The best is probably the Patrice Chereau/Barenboim production (which was long, inexplicably available only in Europe). However, no single production has the final word and it is refreshing to see this opera (once considered a type of avant-garde boogey man) now almost standard repertoire. Even more encouraging is “standard” does not equate with stagnancy.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov is among the most respected art directors active today and for very good reasons. He is nowhere near as provocative or idiosyncratic in this opera, as say, Calixto Bieto in his 2010 production, but nor is Tcherniakov as by the book as Mussbach (in what was, for a long time, the only available version and an ultimately inadequate at that).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

This is not to say Tcherniakov’s staging is not an interpretive one. Indeed, he takes a frightening, Orwellian approach. The tonal shift from soldier to business man casts the opera in a political sheen, which is apt as Berg’s libretto does not shy at all from such implications.

 

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010Alban Berg

Sociological themes abound. Wozzeck (Georg Nigel) is caught in a 21st century bourgeoise hell, living his postmodern, virtual life in perverse role playing games while failing to make human contact with his lover, Maire (Mardi Byers). Byers excels in her role of a frustrated sex symbol type. Their son is even more alienated, a constant, distant spectral presence, only coming to life with Wii remote control in hand.

And oh, that box.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

Nigel and Byers are as up to their respective roles vocally,as they are in the acting department. The remaining cast is uniformly superb, including Maxim Paster, as the Captain, Pyotr Migunov as the Doctor, and Xenia Vyaznikova as Margret.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

There is much more to Tcherniakov’s thoughtful concepts, which everyone can probably agree captures the contextual and gestural spirt of Alban Berg (of course, the opera fundamentalists will carp, but they can just go home).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

The dvd includes a valuable making of documentary. There is room on Berg’s shelf for this Wozzeck.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck DVDAlban Berg by Schoenberg

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Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.

Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.

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Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication

ZAIDE.ADAMA

Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.

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THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: OLIVIER PY’S LULU (2011)

Alban Berg (1885-1934) may be the most notorious member of the Second Viennese School, even more so than leader Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Berg, the most romantic of the school, was as influenced by Gustav Mahler as Schoenberg. Berg died young and did not live long enough to compose a large a body of work. However, he did compose what may very well be the two most repulsive operas ever written. Even Schoenberg was aghast, and urged his younger colleague to discontinue writing such filth. A premature death stopped Berg from finishing his final opera, “Lulu.” He completed two of the three acts and the final act was completed in the short particell format. Some forty years later, Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration for the third act, which premiered under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Both “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” are extreme operas from an extreme composer. One would think that this fact would make opera fans receptive to interpretive stagings.

Olivier Py belongs to that school of enfant terrible stage directors working in European opera today. Py, while creating mixed reactions in Europe, is among the most in-demand and successful stage directors. Singers clamor to work for him, his productions usually sell out within a matter of hours, and are almost always considered newsworthy events. The European climate for opera stems from a different mindset altogether. Most telling was a recent newscast covering the expressionist nightmare “Magic Flute” staged by Martin Kusej. This “Flute” received wildly mixed reactions. The audience was torn between passionate applause and equally passionate catcalls. The newscaster shrugged: “It would not be an event if opera goers were not challenged.”

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THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK

Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences. It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.

Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain. The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.

Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets. Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance. Wozzeck visits The Doctor. The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having. Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair. The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts. Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.

Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations. Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them. Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.

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HUMANIZING MESSIAH

There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.

Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.

Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.

The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.

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